Sunday, May 2, 2010

The trail, part three. This is from a different part of arches, "The Fiery Furnace" a maze of narrow paths and dark pits. It can be so disorienting that the visitors center recommends that you enter with a ranger if you've never been before. I gladly took them up on the offer. Our ranger-guide must have been pushing 70 but it was a delight to see him climbing over boulders and sliding through narrow cracks while the rest of up were fighting to keep up. He also provided interesting explanations of the surrounding environment.

One detail that would prove crucial to me at a later time was his explanation of the effect of rain on exposed sandstone. The cement that holds the sandstone in Arches together is calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate can be dissolved when it reacts with water and carbon dioxide. It just so happens that rain water accumulates enough carbon dioxide on its descent to earth that it creates just such a reaction. The result is that after a rain storm, the surfaces of sandstone boulders are covered in a thin layer of the sand left behind when its CaCO3 matrix dissolved.

The reason that this was so important to me is because I prefer to wear tennis shoes while hiking. I think that they are much more comfortable, and their shallow treads provide a great amount of friction on dry, rough sandstone. Once the rain storm happened, the sandstone began to act as a course grade sandpaper on the soles of my shoes, reducing my shallow treads to a smooth rubber in less than a day of hiking. Once this had happened, wet sand began to cling to the bottoms of my shoes. These sand grains acted as little ball bearings making it impossible for me to stand on more than a 10 degree incline before I would start to slowly slide away.

This was merely a source of annoyance and mild peril until I approached the flooded wash which I described in an earlier post. As I said, there were two options, find another route or wade waist-deep through the puddle which was about 30 feet across. Other hikers were arriving often enough that I decided not to risk taking off my pants to wade through and decided to find another route. I eventually determined that this was the only passage though an otherwise immense fin of sandstone that stretched as far as I could see in either direction. There was however a large and lumpy boulder sitting on one side of the puddle that would allow for dry passage provided that one could get on top of it. I tried every approach to climbing the boulder but just as I would reach for a handhold to pull myself up the last step, my useless shoes would invariably slip and send me bouncing down the side of the boulder. The humiliating thing was that the boulder really wasn't that steep. As some snooty kid would gleefully demonstrate to me, with a good pair of shoes you could run right up the side of it.

Eventually I decided to go back and find the biggest fallen tree branch that I could and try to plant it in the water as a step to where I could grab an easy handhold on the side of the boulder. The branch I found was roughly T shaped and quite flexible. As I edged myself towards the water, branch in hand, I started to slide towards the puddle and threw my hands out to stop myself. When I slammed the T shaped branch down in my hand, the three prongs stuck to the stone and stopped me instantly. What a wonderful invention! The wooden climbing claw was what I decided to call it as it allowed me to easily hoist myself up the side of the boulder to safety.

Once I had reached the other side another group of hikers came into view. I called over to them and explained what I had done to get by and told them that I'd toss them the stick that I had used. I hurled the stick with amazing inaccuracy, bouncing it off the wall and depositing it in the middle of the puddle. Without saying another word I just turned around and continued with my hike. Figuring out how to get over that puddle was the most fun part of my day and I realized I shouldn't deny them of the same pleasure.

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